Football’s certainly not always a fair game, but sometimes you get exactly what you deserve, and that was the case tonight. Reading went into this trip to strugglers Cardiff City with the team selection and tactical approach of a side hoping it could get a draw - in stark contrast to a poor but nonetheless spirited and positive Bluebirds team that believed it could get a win and ultimately did.
Romaine Sawyers got the goal late on, but in truth it could have come at most points during the game. Cardiff weren’t that great but didn’t have to be to outclass a poor Reading side, and had their share of chances to win the contest, including hitting the bar twice in the second half.
I say “tactical approach” in the broadest possible sense. There wasn’t really much of one from Reading tonight, save the aimless long balls up to Andy Carroll with the intention of... something or another. In the first half you could tell that Femi Azeez had been given the task of playing off Carroll and getting on the end of flick-ons... so of course Azeez was the first to be withdrawn in the second half. Replacement Yakou Meite added little.
Normally in a match report I’d try to go through the key moments of the game: Reading chances, opposition chances, turning points and so on. There’s not really anything to work with in this case though: the Royals were tactically vacuous, as if they’d been sent out with no instructions from the gaffer except “don’t concede”, and accordingly we brought little of substance to the contest.
As Joe Lumley nodded a header wide of the post late on, I pondered how much of a footballing injustice it would have been for a team this wayward and devoid of attacking threat to even secure a point. I was also reminded of Reading’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough last season, when the Reds’ best chance of the afternoon came when - you guessed it - Joe Lumley went close from a set piece late on. That desperation then was a sign of just how out of depth and short on ideas their manager looked.
It’s funny how things come full circle, isn’t it?
I put the blame for tonight squarely on Ince, for clarity. This strikes me as an honest, hard-working group of players that do care - but they’re being let down by a manager who is simply incapable of formulating plans for them to win the game. I’m not talking about complicated, expansive or entertaining football - just identifiable ideas of how Reading might score goals (ideally from open play!) and win games.
For a match against a side struggling to stay in the division, such a modest target should be achievable. I can take Reading making errors and falling short - that certainly includes Ince - but there’s no intent from him in the first place. If this were a school exam on tactics, Ince’s answer would be a half-hearted doodle in the corner of the worksheet.
We’ve known for so very long now that Reading need better ideas in possession (read: any ideas in possession) if they’re to kick on and win games. Despite the EFL’s restrictions, he’s absolutely had the time and personnel options to develop some kind of tactical plan for this side... and yet there’s still nothing there.
I truly want to believe Ince can and will turn things around, but too many games at the moment - whether Reading get away with a poor performance (Rotherham United), are narrowly punished (Sunderland, Cardiff City) or trounced (Stoke City) - are evidence that he can’t.
Onto next Saturday’s match against Blackpool - another game Reading really should be targeting a win in ahead of a tough March. Reading need one heck of an improvement from tonight if they’re to emerge victorious.